By Jack Payne
Weddings, U-picks, and corn mazes make Florida farms family places. You can take your kids to see, feel, and taste the real Florida. Those visits also help keep farming families intact.
You see, most Florida farmers have day jobs off the ranch and beyond the fields. They can’t make it on farming alone.
Michelle and Blake Welch are third-generation ranchers on 40 acres in Plant City. For years, Michelle also taught school. Blake fixed plumbing at nuclear power plants — work that kept him away from the farm for months at a time.
Things changed when they hosted their son’s wedding reception in their barn. They poured concrete for a center aisle, hung decorative lights, and turned mason jars into candle holders and vases. The party was a smash success, and soon their son’s friends were having their weddings in the barn.
Word spread, and soon they were booking weddings for people they didn’t even know. Michelle started to believe they could make a go of this full time.
Just then Blake’s dad, in his 80s, got sick. “Papa” was a big man, bigger than anyone in the family other than Blake could handle. And Papa pleaded not to be put in a nursing home.
“I want you to stay home,” Michelle told Blake next time he got the call for an out-of-state job. She said the wedding barn should be their job. Blake stayed, nervous that there wouldn’t be another call if he didn’t respond to this one. Michelle resigned from teaching after 23 years.
They stayed home so Papa could stay home. They took a leap of faith that making the farm more profitable would make up for lost wages.
It worked – for a while. Then the fire marshal showed up and told Michelle that by the time he finished his inspection, she wouldn’t be interested in holding any more weddings. He then told her she needed a $50,000 water tower.
Michelle couldn’t afford a water tower. Even worse, if the business shut down keeping the farm may have been in jeopardy, considering the cost of nursing home care.
With the help of her local University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension office and her local Farm Bureau, she got a reprieve while the state figures out how to regulate businesses like the Welches’.
Agritourism is still a developing industry, and the rules are in flux. UF/IFAS is educating farmers around the state on what they should know before they put the welcome mat out at the farm gates.
For example, our Agritourism and Ecotourism Business Development Conference (tinyurl.com/ag-eco-conference) on Feb. 18 and 19 is expected to draw farmers from across the state to the Gulf Power Building in Pensacola.
UF/IFAS Extension and the Farm Bureau in counties in the Panhandle and throughout Florida have been organizing Farm-City events for decades to familiarize city dwellers with the source of their food and to give farmers a single-day snapshot of what’s involved in opening their farms to the public.
We’ve even opened the South Miami-Dade Tropical Agriculture Visitors Center in 2014 in cooperation of local government and business officials.
The most recent agricultural census reports nearly a 40 percent increase in agritourism receipts in Florida from 2007 to 2012. But we’re still way behind other states, and we’re leaving tourists’ money on the table if they don’t venture beyond theme parks and beaches.
The Welches are still waiting as policy makers discuss rules that could shut them down or secure their future. The intervention of UF/IFAS and the Farm Bureau, though, has given Wishing Well Barn the time to create unforgettable wedding days in authentic Florida settings for more than 200 families.
A bit more than a year ago, Papa died. But he did it on his own terms, surrounded by family. The Welches’ agritourism business allowed Papa to live out his last three years at home instead of a nursing home, which greatly improved his quality of life and maybe extended his life, because family meant everything to him.
“Plus, I had my husband back,” Michelle says. No more months-long separations as he travels to the next power plant. “What is that worth?”
Agritourism granted the owners of Wishing Well Barn their own wish – a dignified death for a patriarch at his farm. The more agritourism grows in Florida, the more likely it is to grant a wish for your family, too.
Jack Payne is the University of Florida’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources and leader of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.